Although important, oil & gas regulation isn’t the solution

Bruce Baizel, Energy Program Director co-authored this blog.

We are in the midst of a climate crisis, and oil and gas methane pollution is accelerating that crisis. That’s why Earthworks opposes all new extraction of oil and gas, and new infrastructure that commits us to future extraction.

But in communities where it is already occurring, peer-reviewed research indicates that oil and gas extraction and processing, and petrochemical production pose a significant health threat. That’s why Earthworks also supports strong public oversight — science-based laws and regulations robustly enforced to protect air, water, public health and the global climate.

Only through a rapid, clean and just transition to a fossil-fuel free economy can the world avert catastrophic climate change. Public regulatory agencies’ own enforcement records clearly show that adequate regulation of oil and gas production is more aspirational than actual. Still, robust government oversight is the least bad option to minimize damage to communities and climate once oil and gas extraction and processing, and petrochemical production are occurring.

But the ultimate solution is to stop fossil fuel production, not to regulate it.

That said, no matter how much we might wish otherwise, oil and gas are woven into the social, political and economic fabric of every day. We can’t wave our magic wand and eliminate fossil fuels. To reduce its use down to zero we must convince, wheedle, browbeat, persuade, pressure, convert, lobby, and campaign — employing all the tools at our disposal.

Our staff is out in the field right now, as they are almost daily, recording optical gas imaging video of oil and gas operations releasing toxic volatile organic compounds and climate polluting methane. Much of that pollution, in many of the locations we record, isn’t illegal because there are no rules against it. Because it isn’t illegal, there are whole swaths of the public who don’t think it’s a problem, or don’t even know about it. It’s just our word against industry’s — no matter what scientific literature suggests.

We have been trying to work with the oil and gas industry to improve its respect for communities and environment for three decades. It is that experience, and our research of how states enforce their oil and gas laws and regulations, that leads us to believe that responsible oil and gas production is not occurring.

That said, increased regulation of oil and gas development is definitely worthwhile. It is worthwhile because it reduces harm to communities and climate. And it is worthwhile because it is a necessary step on the path towards eliminating fossil fuels because regulation helps show that responsible operations are not being achieved. To convince people to eliminate fossil fuels altogether, especially in places where operations are an important part of the economy, we have to show them the damage being done. And in order to do that, we need to show that oil and gas companies are breaking the law.

Strengthened regulatory oversight — as the New Mexico governor is proposing, as the Colorado governor has recently announced he will try to legislatively authorize —  is an important tool on the path to make a just transition to a fossil fuel free economy. But it cannot be the only tool, and it cannot come at the expense of other tools. And we must disabuse decision-makers and the public of the notion that oil and gas regulation is the end goal. Public education about the existential climate crisis, incentives for renewables and disincentives for fossil fuels, and public campaigns to ban extraction are all necessary to get to 100% renewables so we can keep it in the ground.


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